Tracks leading to the slide area the searchers had expected—though not yet discovered, some function, they could only conclude, of sun angle and snow conditions over on that slope leading to more rapid decay and/or concealment of whatever markings had existed—but the discovery of three sets of tracks leaving the slide and heading downhill…that was a major revelation. It had snowed since the making of those tracks, been snowing, in fact, at the time of the slide itself, and but for the sheltering action of a few clusters of low-growing firs which had buffered the wind and caused most of the new snow to drift up behind them, there might have been nothing left of the trail upon which the searchers now found themselves.
None of the indistinct tracks, obviously, were Juni’s, the reporter having been found dead in the middle of the debris field, and though somewhat obscured by the action of sun and blowing snow, it was clear to all involved that the tracks consisted of one smaller set and two larger. Two males and a female, it appeared, one of the males walking with a pronounced limp and at times even dragging his foot on the injured side, leaving behind smears of blood wherever he stopped. Under a spruce not far from the slide path they came upon a place where the injured man had clearly collapsed in the snow, more blood visible when they kicked away the wind-blown top layer of white, and with it another bit of torn, bloodstained cloth.
All of this evidence the agents collected, labeling, organizing as Bud struggled to come up with an alternate story to the one that was making itself plain before his eyes and theirs, trying to find a way in which he might bring about the destruction of all that evidence before they could get it back to the lab and confirm the growing suspicion that their fugitive had been traveling with the reporter, and had emerged alive if injured from the avalanche which had claimed her life.
In light of their new discoveries and wanting to thoroughly investigate the area before moving on along the trail, agents returned to search and probe the slide area once more, this time coming up with part of a broken snowshoe and a mitten hand-sewn of what appeared to be bobcat fur. Bits of encrusted blood on the inside of the mitten would, they were fairly confident, match that of their fugitive. Slide debris reasonably exhausted and a fair amount of new and exciting evidence in hand, the party set off along the broken and indistinct trail of the mysterious trio who had walked away from the slide, Kilgore in the lead an wishing with every step that he might find a place to leave the trail, lead them astray, but knowing he could not do it without great caution and forethought, lest they realize what he was about.
Already he’d had a near miss with their discovery of the marks made by the hauling of Juni’s travois. He had previously told them that he carried her out on his back, a story which no one had been given reason to doubt. The drag marks, he speculated, must have been caused by some arrangement the little group was using to carry their gear… And as for the lack of his own trail leaving the slide scene, that was explained by his route, which, he pointed out, had taken him through the gully just to the side of the area—safe, since it had already slid—where the force of the wind had obscure all trace of his passage. So far as he could tell no one was doubting his narrative, a fortunate thing indeed, with all the various troubles already demanding resolution on this trip.
When the trail led beneath trees, there were here and there more distinct impressions, Kilgore reading plainly the slightly peculiar walk of a man missing all the toes on one foot, seeing it even through the heavy limp an hoping the agents couldn’t do the same, though he could tell from some of their conversation that it was strongly suspected they were on the days-old trail of their fugitive. And rather confused by the fact that he was heading down. Just not something he did, they said amongst themselves, not very often and not for some time, at least, and as they walked, the wondered and speculated about his possible destination. And about the third man in his party, the smaller tracks having been assigned to Liz, who was so far as anyone knew still traveling with him. Perhaps he was, they reasoned, someone who had been with the reporter in her travels, the photographer who had previously met Einar while in her company, for example.
Whoever it was, he had not reported her death. Perhaps had not even left the high country, and might even then be traveling with the fugitive family. Or might, the speculation went, have given them a ride out of the area. That seemed as good a reason as any for Asmundson to have broken with long-established tradition, and started heading down towards the valley. And if that had happened—the fugitive and his family spirited out of the area by a partner of the dead reporter and secreted away who knew where in a misguided quest for an exclusive story or some such—there was no telling how far wide they might need to cast their nets in order to get him back. This line of thought brought a halt in the search as agents radioed headquarters with a request for more information on all known associates of the late Juniper Melton, with a special focus on any who might have recently been traveling.
Bud, unable to redirect the search away from such an obviously significant find as the scattered but continuing trail through the snow, could only breathe a sigh of relief that he had worn different boots that day than on his previous expedition, and hope ideas would come to him as things progressed. Not looking good.
* * *
With the departure of Susan they were alone in the house, Einar, Will and Liz, and Einar was glad. The constant presence of another person an exhausting thing for him, even if that other person had every right to be there, and was entirely friendly, as in the case of Susan. In the quiet after she left, Liz feeding Will on the couch, he let his forehead rest on the table, and slept. The nap did not last long, Einar—still boycotting the wearing of anything warmer than his buckskin vest—soon chilled and shivering despite Susan’s having added a log to the fire before leaving for town, injured hip hurting badly there on the hard kitchen chair, and when Liz tried to drape a blanket around his shoulders, he quickly woke. She sat down beside him.
“How about you come and finish that little rest on the couch, where it’ll be more comfortable. And we can try to come up with a plan for the next few days, maybe even the next few weeks…”
He took her hand, didn’t answer, but for the first time since coming down off the mountain she thought, when she looked into his eyes, that she almost recognized the man staring back at her.